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The Evolution of Construction Safety: From the Golden Gate Bridge to Today

Imagine going to work and knowing that a gust of wind could end your life. This was the reality for many of the workers—affectionately called bridgemen—on one of America’s most famous landmarks. Working so high up without safety nets and standardized safety precautions meant that an increase in wind speed could have catastrophic consequences. Life has enough risks. We don’t need more at work.

When we look at some of America’s most incredible engineering feats, we might think of structures like the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, and the Chrysler building. Many of these early construction sites, however, did not have the kind of safety precautions and standards that we have today. And the one that changed construction safety: the one and only Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Because safety for our workers and the public is one of our top priorities here at Constructors, Inc, we thought we’d take a look at how safety precautions in construction sites came to be.

The concept of protecting workers in difficult jobs did not get underway until after the Civil War. It was workers themselves who realized that risk of injury was probable and that no protections existed to take care of them in case that happened. Workers started purchasing insurance in case they suffered an injury on the job.

In the early 20th century and into the 1930s, America had an explosion of great building and expansion of infrastructure. Many of these great landmarks are still standing today and are a true hallmark of early American ingenuity, engineering, and spirit. People like Joseph Strauss, the structural engineer behind the Golden Gate Bridge, would push the frontiers of human construction to new heights. Although Strauss is the main person credited, he had a wide array of engineers and construction experts that made the project a reality.

All of these great advancements in construction didn’t mean that there were no casualties along the way. When the Golden Gate Bridge project began, the average deaths in construction projects meant that one worker died for every million dollars spent. This iconic bridge was a 35 million dollar project, so the prognosis was that 35 lives would be lost.

Instead, only 11 workers died. By today’s standards, this figure is still quite horrifying and would mean some hefty lawsuits, but during the time that Joseph Strauss was constructing one of America’s most famous bridges, this low number was quite the feat. So how did he manage to lose so few workers? After all, the undertaking of major construction projects at the time was almost expected to have some casualties. Somehow, the project went on without a fatality for four years. 

The answer is that Strauss imposed safety measure after safety measure, changing the way that many of these construction sites were handled. Some of the things that Strauss implemented in his construction site that were yet to be commonplace includes:

  • The hard hat. Today, the hardhat is probably the quintessential feature of any construction worker. This was brand new at the time and in the 1930s, these hats were made out of leather and resembled the older football helmets. Yet, they safeguarded workers from accidental blows to the head that could prove to be quite dangerous.
  • The requirement of safety lines. The use of safety lines had been around for a few years, but workers would often opt out because they could be cumbersome or because they simply didn’t feel they were necessary. During the building of the Golden Gate, if you didn’t wear a safety line, you were fired. 
  • Glare-free goggles. These early versions of the safety glasses prevented workers from being blinded from the reflection of the sun off the Pacific waters. 
  • Safety net. Straus insisted that a large safety net be installed underneath the bridge for construction on the underside of it. There would be 19 workers that fell into the net and none died. They were deemed the “Halfway to Hell Club.”
  • Hangover cures. Ok, this one is probably not in place today, as the attitude towards coming into work hungover has changed a little, but Strauss provided “sauerkraut” juice cures for hangovers for many of his workers.

The Day the Bridge Cost Lives 

In February of 1937—only a few months before the completion of the project—a group of bridgemen made their way onto a catwalk, tasked with removing a scaffold that had been built underneath the platform. The catwalk had to be moved as they worked their way through and at 9:20 that morning, it fell. There were twelve men below that fell with it and plunged deep into the Pacific waters below.

The experience was recounted by a few of the survivors in an NPR story during the 75th anniversary of the bridge. One of the men who fell was caught in a net but managed to untangle himself and help another coworker that had also fallen. The other coworker wouldn’t make it, and Slim Lambert, one of the only men to survive the tragedy, was rescued by a crab fisherman who found them floating on some debris. Ten men died that day on the site.

Like many great things in America that have made history, many people doubted its feasibility at first. You don’t have to look hard to find the skeptics whenever someone sets out to do something extraordinary. And yet, in 1937, a cohort of wide-eyed and exalted Americans would cross the first suspension bridge ever to be built. The bridge continues to inspire people today.

Safety in Construction Sites Today 

Since the days of the Golden Gate Bridge much has changed in how construction sites operate. Federal and state guidelines impose their own safety measures and requirements that every site must follow in order to legally operate. These measures have significantly decreased construction accidents and injuries.  Property owners and building contractors trust in companies like Constructors, Inc to continuously manage the risk of injury and damages. There is no room to slip up, so companies must follow strict safety requirements and protocols.

Here at Constructors, Inc, we train our workers and staff in safety measures on a consistent basis. Our project managers are always running things with safety in mind and looking for possible risk spots, ensuring that everyone on the construction site understands their job. 

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